Confession time: I'm not the best cook. It's true. And I'm no expert when it comes to cooking fall slow-cooker favorites such as chili, beef stew, or pulled pork. Nope, I tend to keep things simple when it comes to cooking. I'm talking scrambled eggs, basic cheese dips, and frozen meatballs kind of simple. But I've always wanted to be part of the "set it and forget it" crew of cooks. The slow cooker, in its all-in-one glory, seems to be the perfect appliance for lazy, unskilled cooks like myself who want to produce satisfying, hearty meals with minimal effort.
Every year I make a promise to myself to utilize the slow cooker more often, and every year I fail miserably at keeping that promise. But honestly, up until fairly recently, I just didn't realize the vast potential of the slow cooker. But this year... this year is the year. This year, I vowed that things would be different with my slow cooker, now that I know the extent of its power beyond reheating slurp-worthy soup.
Below are the tips and tricks I've picked up that have allowed me to fall in love with my slow cooker this year. These tidbits of wisdom have empowered me as a cook and given me free time to focus on other important things (like watching football or the newest episode of my favorite TV show). What's more is that most of these hacks come from my mom, the queen of slow-cooker everything--and that's serious credible backing in my book.
Ready to put your slow cooker to work? I've...well, my mom has got you covered this season. Here are my 10 tips for getting the most out of your slow cooker:
1. Double Dip with Your Slow Cooker
Thanks to my mom and some talented, faceless peeps on Pinterest, I no longer have to choose between nacho cheese and spinach-artichoke dip. Cooking two dips at one time for a tailgate party, or when I'm just in a chips and dip kind of mood, is made possible and easy by the slow cooker. Simply mold a few sheets of heavy duty foil to create a wall in the center of the slow cooker, shape the foil so it fits snugly, and place a liner on the bottom to cover both halves. Voila! The two dips will now stay separated. Options, people... they're nice to have.
2. Use the Slow Cooker to Warm Buns (And Tortillas)
Making slow cooker pulled pork to fill sandwiches or tacos? Forego heating up the oven to warm your burns and/or tortillas. Instead, arrange them on a glass pie plate and place the plate on top of the cooked, war filling inside the slow cooker and cover. In just a few minutes, your tortillas and buns will be steamed to perfection.
3. Have Your Slow Cooker Help You to Make Lasagna Like a Boss
No boiling required here, folks. Just layer uncooked lasagna noodles with your favorite fillings like sausage or beef, cheese, and tomato sauce. Cook for 4 to 6 hours or until the noodles are tender, and you're well on your way to a phenomenal one-pot dinner. Here's the best part: The slow cooker pulls double duty, keeping your lasagna warm throughout the meal, just in case you can't help yourself and
want need seconds. And let's be honest, when it's this delicious, you'll likely go for a second helping.
4. Brown Your Meats on the Stovetop Before Introducing them to Your Slow Cooker
I wouldn't classify this one as a shortcut or direct slow cooker "hack", but it's a helpful tip to know when it comes to building flavor in the slow cooker. Searing cuts of meat like a chuck roast or pork chops for a few minutes on the stovetop (just to get a nice brown, caramelized crust on all sides) will help your dish develop rich flavor that the slow cooker simply can't achieve on its own.
5. Embrace How Easy Clean-Up Can be with the Slow Cooker
One foolproof thing that saves me time and makes post-meal clean-up infinitely easier? Using a liner while cooking. Doing so means no more worrying about soaking overnight or scrubbing whatever cheesy and saucy goodness later. But if you do happen to run into stubborn stains in your slow cooker, make a paste using white vinegar and baking soda, and scrub the trouble spots with it.
6. Let the Slow Cooker Do the Work While You Sleep
Pretty self-explanatory, but many people think it's best to let the slow cooker work while they work. Well, this could cause your meal to overcook if you're asked to stay a little late at the office or you somehow end up stuck in traffic. Believe me--after my attempt to set beef stew cooking for dinner one morning last fall, I'd like to say an afternoon stuck on I-75 south in Atlanta didn't turn into a lesson on tough love...er, um, more like tough meat, but that would be a lie. Take it from my disaster--run the slow cooker overnight and turn it off first thing in the morning. You can allow the cooker to cool slightly while you get ready for the day, transfer it to the fridge before you head out, and simply return the pot to the slow cooker base and reheat at dinnertime.
7. Leave the Lid Alone While Slow Cooking
Unless the directions instruct you to do so (to stir occasionally, add in an ingredient later in the process, or reduce liquid towards the end of cooking), don't remove the lid of the slow cooker while your food is cooking. The lid traps heat, and every time you lift it, it can take up to 30 minutes for the slow cooker's interior to return to the proper temperature, resulting in a longer cook time. When in doubt, resist the urge to check things out (yes, you may refer to me as the slow cooker poet of our generation).
8. Go to Your Slow Cooker for More Than Meat
Literally, (almost) anything goes when it comes to the slow cooker. Limiting the slow cooker to merely dinner prep is an amateur hour move. You can make desserts, cocktails, snack mixes, and more in the slow cooker--to the envy of your friends and party guests.
9. Create Autumn Ambiance in the Slow Cooker
Speaking of the divers magic of the slow cooker, here's a non-edible option for the holiday season: all-natural potpourri. Combine whatever fall scents you love, like fresh oranges, cinnamon sticks, rosemary, nutmeg, and cranberries, with water in your slow cooker. Turn the heat up and leave the lid off to fill your home with a sweet autumnal aroma. Just make sure to check on it every few hours and add water as needed.
10. Be Sure to Save Dairy, Veggies, Beans, and Pasta Until the End When Slow Cooking
OK, back to actual cooking tips. Cooking dairy products, like milk and cheese, at higher temperatures for a long period of time can cause them to curdle. It's best to save adding dairy until closer to the end of cooking a slow cooker dish, and the same goes for pasta, beans, and veggies to keep them from turning mushy. This short rib and tomato ragout is a tasty example of the slow cooker at work with al dente pasta, veggies, and meat.